The newest exhibition at Mariane Ibrahim in Chicago explores tropes of racial identity and the stories we tell ourselves. Curated by Hélio Menezes, “The discovery of what it means to be Brazilian” is a group exhibition of psychological works by black Brazilian artists Jaime Lauriano, No Martins, Aline Motta, Éder Oliveira and Tiago Sant’Ana.
The exhibition opens the doors to the historic racial division in Brazil and how it influenced the present generation, the title echoing James Baldwin’s 1959 article, “The discovery of what it means to be an American.” The big question in this exhibition is, how has Brazil’s internal racial conflict, and external image to America, influenced its citizens, specifically those of African descent?
Walking into the space the works surround you; the viewer must take in multiple dialogues at once due to the proximity of each piece. The first is a large-scale acrylic painting by Martins of a young, brown man looking off into the main gallery area. The scale of the painting swallows the viewer, yet the details in the figure’s facial expression create curiosity of thought, reason and space. Martins’ attention to emotional detail illuminates the daily woes of Afro-Brazilians, and the emotional weight that comes along with racial exclusion.
Using cotton, black Pemba fabric and charcoal, Lauriano asks viewers to peel a layer of the power structure that has created the spaces we occupy. These places, spaces and names, often taken for granted due to historical norms, are called into question.
Sugar cane, often found in Southern Brazil, has long been a staple in the local economy. Sant’Ana dives deeper into the Brazilian industry that contributes to more than eighty percent of the sugar that is produced worldwide and looks at the working implications that it places Afro-Brazilians in. Images like “Sugar Shoes” (2018) are filled with tension as struggle and work ethic create an emotional environment.
Each digital image captured by Motta is a reflection on the subject. Each male and female she photographs seems to reflect on their own image, their voice. Motta touches on the multitude of voices that exist in Afro-Brazilian culture but also on how their stories are often reimagined. In this portrayal, each person recreates what their existence as people of a larger society means.
At the back of the gallery two large-scale paintings hang side-by-side, of two Brazilian men. One oil painting, depicted in shades of red, has the subject looking down, while the painting next to it has the subject breaking the fourth wall. One image captures the vulnerability of us as humans, taking away racial implications and reflecting on the core, while the other, in grayscale, shows the male’s face completely pixelated. Each of these pieces questions the identity of the Brazilian male and questions of preconceived notions of people.
Black contemporary art in the states has often diverged from the white and black narrative, yet this exhibition takes a different route. The often whitewashed, homogenous image of Brazil is confronted by these black Brazilian artists with work that is stained with white elitism. They challenge the history and notions that have been set forth. The discovery of what it means to be Brazilian is less of a story and instead an open-ended question, asking the viewer whose stories get told and how do we exist in them. (Caira Moreira-Brown)
“The discovery of what it means to be Brazilian” is on view at Mariane Ibrahim, 437 North Paulina, Chicago, Illinois. Through March 21.